21st Sun [C] 2004

Fr. Charles Irvin


Isaiah 66:18-21; Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13; Luke 13:22-30

 

There is a sort of unwritten, unarticulated assumption present in modern religious thought that, I think, is deadly. It is just as damaging as believing that all one need do to win eternal salvation is to have good intentions. But just as deadly is the notion that God will save us in spite of ourselves because we think we are powerless victims of forces operating in our world, consequently all of our efforts are ineffectual and of little consequence. God, the thinking goes, is therefore obliged to save us.

 

As I read salvation history and as I read the New Testament, such a proposition just does not stand up in the face of the teachings of Jesus Christ. The truth is that God does not save us in spite of ourselves, in spite of our decisions, in spite of our choices. As a matter of fact the likelihood is that God, at our meeting Him face to face when we die, will confirm our choices. He will continue to respect our free will choices and styles of life. That realization is, to me, the most terrifying thing about God. I wish He wouldn’t, but the revealed truth is that God respects our free will choices so much that He won’t cancel out our decisions.

 

Why should He? Of course He has the power to save us in spite of ourselves. He could do it. I’m not questioning that. He is almighty and is free to do as He wishes. But the question is: Will He? Will He choose to save us in spite of our unwillingness to respond to His love… in spite of our lack of real effort to live life with His Son, Jesus Christ… in spite of our apathetic responses to His offers, our taking-for-granted, tepid non-responses to His most precious Gift to us, Jesus Christ? If He saves us anyway, even though we haven’t given Him our chosen efforts, then He would be writing a script that runs counter to the life and death of Jesus Christ.

 

It’s a lot like this I think  – At your birth God deals you a poker hand. As you go through life you discover that you don’t have some good cards. You also discover that others in the game of life have better hands than you do, and some have been dealt worse cards than yours. From time to time God gives you the opportunity to turn in some of your cards and get some new ones. You might even get the chance to turn in your whole hand and get an entirely new one.

 

At death the game is over and you come face to face with God. Suddenly you realize that the game isn’t really over, it goes on and on – forever. Everything in this life and in the next depends on how you play out the cards that were dealt to you.

 

Now most of you have been coming to Mass most of your life. You’ve received instruction on the things of religion as well as your relation with the world around you and the people within it. You’ve been given the Holy Sacraments of the Church. Let me ask you: What sort of hand do you want right now? How would you change your life or the way you play out the game of life?

Do you want to rearrange your hand at all? Get any new cards? Get a whole new hand? There’s no reason whatsoever to believe that God end the game, so you’d better think about that seriously.

 

Remember, too, that you’re already in eternal life. The life you were given at birth has reached the point where it’s at today and it will continue to be lived out even on the other side of the grave. The game goes on even after you die. So you’d better think about how you’re playing out the cards you’ve been dealt. Do you want to rearrange the way you live? Your patterns of behavior? The way you relate to others? The way you pay serious attention to God?

 

The most terrifying thing about God is that He respects our decisions; He honors our choices as we play out life’s game with Him. He plays the game seriously and He doesn’t cheat, nor does He cancel out the plays we’ve made. He will not save us in spite of ourselves.

 

The truth is that God has given a universal call to all men and women everywhere, in all ages and in all cultures. He is available to all men and women and will not fail them. His Word has been uttered to all and can be heard in the hearts of all. God will not fail them. The disaster is that we can fail. It is quite possible to die and lose one’s immortal soul. We can throw down our cards and live in hell for all eternity.

 

Someone asked Jesus: “Lord, are they few in number who are to be saved?”  He replied: “Try to come in through the narrow door. Many, I tell you, will try to enter and be unable…” In another place Jesus said: “Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord’ will be saved. Only those who hear the word of my Father and keep it.” Put another way, only those who play out life’s game with me will be saved. Those who throw away their cards are responsible for their choices and must live with their decisions forever.

 

The fact that human beings can fail, and that we can sin, die spiritually and enter hell, either in this life or in the next, is a dimension of human freedom. Spiritual death is a possibility because life isn’t really life at all unless it is lived in freedom, in freedom of choice. We all have freedom of choice. The question is: “Choice to do what?”

 

There is a sort of unwritten, unarticulated assumption present in modern religious thought that, I think, is deadly. It is just a damaging as believing that all one need do to win eternal salvation is to have good intentions. As I read salvation history and as I read the New Testament, such a proposition just does not stand up in the face of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. The truth is that God does not save us in spite of ourselves, in spite of our decisions, in spite of our choices. As a matter of fact, the likelihood is that God will, at our death and meeting Him face to face, confirm our choices.

 

But we have tremendous hope. God’s gracious gifts to us are abundant and are everywhere available to all. They are available in Tibet, in China, in Africa, and here in our own land. They are available to Buddhists, Hindus, Moslems, Jews, Protestants and Catholics. And I am most comforted by the fact that God’s grace and love, along with the empowerments of the Holy Spirit with His gifts of wisdom, understanding, knowledge and strength of His love, come to you and me in Jesus Christ, in the Sacraments of His Church. Because of Jesus Christ we know what sort of hand we should have, the cards we need from God, and how we should play them out in the great game of life. Christ Jesus was given the whole deck — and He plays the game perfectly. We, the lucky ones, have only to follow suit and play out our cards just as Jesus did.

About Charles Irvin

Fr. Charlie was ordained a priest June 3, 1967 and has served as pastor of St. Mary Student Chapel in Ann Arbor, founded Holy Spirit parish in Hamburg, MI, served as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi parish in Ann Arbor and was pastor of St. Mary parish in Manchester, MI when he entered Senior Priest status in 2001. In 1999 he was appointed Founding Editor of FAITH Magazine which has grown into Faith Catholic Publishing located in Lansing, MI. He is now very active in his “retirement.”